Read the Errata; An Appreciation
I think you should carry a copy of Jacob Smullyan’s new short book Errata (Sagging Meniscus Press , available on Amazon as of March 15, 2017 here: https://goo.gl/qfowIu) with you as a kind of literary tonic. As your immersion in the au currant literary moment gives you that certain ennui, the short entries in Errata will help exercise that bug and give you back your senses. There are many antidotes in it.
The first I should mention, though, is the antidote for the pernicious existence of problems for which there is only one answer. There is a firm grasp of logic and philosophy underneath these short tales, which are so concise that I almost want to call them “prose-poetry. “ Jacob Smullyan’s characters (or the character of his writing, you might say) ask questions and give postulates upon which to base answers, but those answers are invariably your own. I would be surprised if your heart wasn’t involved in crafting them for yourself.
The name “Smullyan” uttered in the same paragraph as a condemnation of one-answer problems (which may be an obtuse way of describing logic) cannot fail to invoke the logician and prankster Raymond Smullyan. R. Smullyan was famous for such problems. They were intricately formed and posed, and certainly evocative of thought, but to his mind they each had only one answer.
In a way, Errata by J. Smullyan is an answer to all of the problems R. Smullyan posed, and that answer is a gentle suggestion that the really interesting problems all have more than one answer. And, perhaps, that all problems, taken together, really add up to one problem (existence). In this, R. and J. Smullyan may have found a meeting of the minds in and around the gentle truths of philosophical Taoism. Some of the characters in Errata have only an initial for a name. This is fun, and evocative of Kafka and Ionesco. It points to a relationship with their philosophical ideas and the interlinked questions about existence and identity, not to put to fine a Trump-era point on it.
The immediate question of the literary moment might be phrased as a radical reaction to labels. It feels like a long time that writers have been sticking labels on themselves and then laboring mightily to adhere to their own postulated definitions. The Internet’s new ways of selling obviously have something to do with that. This has lead to a plethora of new labels: lyric essay, narrative non-fiction, poet essay et. al. Real writers have always known that you don’t and shouldn’t know where exactly you’re going to end up when you start out on the quest called “writing” – to loosely paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut. So these labels are, as they always have been, preposterous and irrelevant to writing itself.
Mentioning Vonnegut is not without critical merit in a quick appreciation of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata; I more imagine that the essays in Errata could have been written by a Vonnegut character than by Vonnegut himself, though. And to be clear, that’s high praise.
So if the new literature, and the new literature about the new literature, has you feeling baffled and a long way from the end of whatever it is you’re reading – be it catching up on Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents by Elaine Showalter, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson, or Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields, or whatever earnest, important, and/or misleading book of the moment has you enthralled and exhausted – I suggest pulling out Errata by Jacob Smullyan and reading one of the wonderful, gem-like and self-contained essay/stories in it over a cup of coffee.
It almost feels like the clarity, brevity, and intimacy of Errata was somehow left out of a lot of the dense and important works being discussed these days. You’ll be glad in this sense that you read the errata.
And not to spoil the ending of Errata, but it actually has one.
Christopher Carter Sanderson is the author of The Too-Brief Chronicle of Judah Lowe (https://goo.gl/SGjM6s).